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The Global Church in 2020

Every year Christianity Today runs year-end lists of its top stories in several categories.

I’m pleased to have reported on 16 of 20 in international news. When including US domestic news coverage, my article on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict finished No. 6 overall.

Here is the full list arranged chronologically, for your review:

Soleimani’s Death Doesn’t End Iran’s Influence on Middle East Christians

  • In Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, can believers offer Shiites better support than the assassinated military leader?
  • Jayson Casper

13 Christian Takes on Trump’s Peace Plan for Israel and Palestine

  • Evangelicals in Middle East and US debate if “Deal of the Century” is “generous” or “extreme.”
  • Jayson Casper

Religious Freedom Comes to Europe’s Second-Newest Nation. But Christians Are Concerned.

  • Montenegro’s Orthodox and evangelicals debate if new religion law is a blessing or a church-stealing curse.
  • Jayson Casper

Nigeria’s Government Agrees: Islamist Terrorists Target Christians

  • The goal of Boko Haram and ISWAP is “to divide Christian brother against Muslim brother,” Buhari administration tells CT.
  • Jayson Casper

Spiritual Abuse Definition Debated by UK Christians

  • Cases of Steve Timmis and Jonathan Fletcher illustrate debate over at what point a pastor’s exhortation crosses the line into coercion.
  • Ken Chitwood

7 Lessons from Singapore’s Churches for When Coronavirus Reaches Yours

  • Advice from Christians in the “Antioch of Asia” on how your congregation can survive, and thrive, amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Edric Sng

Arab Christians Have Lost Easter Before. Here’s What They Learned.

  • Whether COVID-19 or ISIS, believers from Iraq, Syria, and Egypt know “neither plague nor persecution can snuff out the church of Christ.”
  • Jayson Casper

Surviving COVID-19 in Spain Changed My Faith

  • Six lessons for churches from the president of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance.
  • Marcos Zapata

GOD TV Dispute Has Israel Talking About Messianic Jews

  • Christian broadcaster’s expansion into Hebrew cable channel may be short-lived, but raises profile of followers of Yeshua.
  • The Associated Press and Jayson Casper

How ‘Way Maker’ Topped the US Worship Charts from Nigeria

  • Lagos worship leader Sinach penned the pandemic and protest anthem sung by Leeland and Michael W. Smith.
  • Megan Fowler

Refugee Converts Aren’t ‘Fraudsters,’ German Pastors Say

  • Churches push back on immigrant officials’ new skepticism of authentic faith.
  • Ken Chitwood

16 Beirut Ministries Respond to Lebanon Explosion

  • Evangelical leaders describe the damage, how Christians are helping, and the need for a hope beyond politics.
  • Jayson Casper in Beirut

Can ‘Abraham’ Bring Peace to the Middle East?

  • Christians in the Gulf hope historic UAE-Israel normalization might also lead to a deal with Palestinians.
  • Jayson Casper

Researchers Find Christians in Iran Approaching 1 Million

  • Secular survey may succeed where Christian advocates have failed to convince the world of widespread conversions in the Islamic republic.
  • Jayson Casper

Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

  • Is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a Christian-Muslim clash, or simply politics?
  • Jayson Casper

Biden Said ‘Inshallah.’ Many Arab Christians Do Too.

  • Arabic phrase invoked during presidential debate parallels James 4 and offers a window into how Christians and Muslims view God’s will.
  • Jayson Casper

Chinese Christians Deserve a Better Label Than ‘Persecuted’

  • Xi’s government isn’t friendly to religion. But its actions shouldn’t color how we think of believers there.
  • Brent Fulton

Turks and Armenians Reconcile in Christ. Can Azeris Join Them?

  • Confessing the genocide, Turkish evangelicals seek forgiveness on behalf of their nation. With ongoing war in Nagorno-Karabakh, is there a path forward also with Azerbaijan’s believers?
  • Jayson Casper

Will $335 Million Peace with Israel Secure Sudan’s Religious Freedom?

  • Sudanese religious leaders and American human rights experts examine the latest and symbolically powerful Arab normalization agreement with the Jewish state.
  • Jayson Casper

France’s Free Speech Makes Arab Christians Squirm

  • In conflict over Muhammad cartoons, French evangelicals rally behind their president’s defense of secularism. But brethren in the Middle East are torn.
  • Jayson Casper

Many thanks for a patient editor, and especially to willing sources. Like everyone else, we pray for better news in 2021.

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$1.4 Million Templeton Prize Celebrates the Jihad of Religion and Politics

2018 Templeton Prize Ceremony HM (Credit Templeton Prize-Clifford Shirley)
His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan speaking at the 2018 Templeton Prize Ceremony at Washington National Cathedral, November 13, 2018. (Photo credit: Templeton Prize-Clifford Shirley)

At the November 13 award ceremony of the 2018 Templeton Prize for contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, Rev. Randolph Hollerith, dean of the illustrious National Cathedral in Washington, DC, invoked one political leader to pay homage to another.

“The struggle for peace and mutual understanding is truly God’s work,” he said, calling attention to a saying and on-grounds statue of Abraham Lincoln. “King Abdullah [of Jordan] has shown us how to truly make it our own.”

The $1.4 million prize, traditionally granted to religious figures, philosophers, and scientists, marks the Templeton Foundation’s goal to be an international catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most profound questions facing humankind.

“It begins with the struggle—the jihad—within ourselves to be the best we can be,” Said Abdullah. “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” [Jihad means “struggle” in Arabic.]

But just as Lincoln was a spiritually sensitive soul in a country divided by war, so King Abdullah II of Jordan was cited for his faith-based efforts to heal the Muslim nation—and the world.

“His Majesty King Abdullah the Second is a person shaped by temporal and political responsibilities,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, “yet one who holds the conviction that religious belief and the free exercise of religion are among humankind’s most important callings.”

In the wake of the Iraq war, Abdullah was pained at the sectarianism and violence Muslim groups perpetrated against one another. On November 9, 2005, they took aim at Jordan, as coordinated suicide bombings at three Amman hotels killed over 50 people.

The timing suggests deep offense against Abdullah’s leadership.

A year to the day earlier, the king launched the Amman Message from Jordan’s capital. Its three points declared the validity of the eight traditional Muslim schools of jurisprudence, forbade the practice of calling a Muslim an infidel, and set forth criteria for legitimate issuance of legal fatwas.

Eventually over 500 leading Muslim scholars endorsed the document.

But Abdullah did not content himself with peace between Muslims. In 2007 he led the effort to launch A Common Word Between Us and You, addressing the heads of Christian communities around the world.

Assuaging popular fears that Muslims were against Christians, it instead urged dialogue and cooperation around the twin commands to love God and love neighbor, which it declared common to both faiths.

Originally signed by 138 Muslim leaders, it has now been endorsed by nearly 20,000 individuals.

“Abraham pitched a grand tent in which all were welcome,” said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, in remarks at the ceremony.

“King Abdullah’s work, above and beyond his duties as head of state, is helping to restore that resplendent Abrahamic tent where all are welcome as guests of God.”

Yusuf was joined by Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and the lead author of the Christian response to A Common Word.

“Muslims and Christians had concocted together a poisonous brew,” he said. “The only instrument powerful enough to confront the differences … are seemingly impotent words.”

But to the words of these declarations, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added the importance of symbolism and practical help. He praised Abdullah, his “dear friend,” for the proposal to establish the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, unanimously adopted and held the first week of February.

But in reference to his former role as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he lauded Jordan’s reception of tens of thousands of refugees, both Christian and Muslim.

“I had to visit governments to ask them to do the impossible,” he said, turning toward the king. “But I would visit your majesty, and the impossible would become a reality.”

Performers at the ceremony included the Dozan wa Awtar choir and Jordan’s National Music Conservatory Orchestra, under the direction of producer and pianist Talal Abu Al Ragheb.

Vocalists included Zain Awad and Emanne Beasha, the nine-year-old winner of Arabs Got Talent.

King Abdullah II joins a group of 47 prize recipients including Mother Teresa, who received the inaugural award in 1973, the Dalai Lama (2012), and Desmond Tutu (2013). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks won the 2016 Prize. The 2017 Laureate was American philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Abdullah is the 41st direct descendant of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Monarch since 1999, he reigns over a population of roughly 10 million, estimated at two percent Christian. His Hashemite family has had custodianship over Holy Land religious sites since 1924.

Templeton Award prize money would be partially given to repair these ancient buildings, the king said, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The rest would be distributed to interfaith institutions in Jordan and around the world.

In his acceptance speech, Abdullah assured his lifetime of effort was to please God, not the world. And like with Lincoln above, he urged the audience on to a greater jihad.

“It is time to do all we can to maximize the good in our world, and bring people together in understanding,” said Abdullah.

“We can create the future of coexistence that humanity so desperately needs. Let us keep up the struggle.”

Please click here for a full video of the award ceremony.

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Happy Orthodox Easter, from the Egyptian President

EGYPT-POLITICS-RELIGION-COPTIC-SISI
President Sisi visits Pope Tawadros in advance of Easter 2014, via AFP.

Happy belated Easter, to Protestant and Catholic Christians who celebrated last week.

But having enjoyed either “Pascha” or “Paas” (or both), please do not be remiss in remembering your Orthodox brothers and sisters today.

After all, even the president of Egypt extends his greetings — and more.

I call on all of us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ that lead humanity to the ways of love and peace,” he said, as reported by Ahram Online.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a Muslim.

Muslims join Christians in acknowledging the virgin birth of Jesus, but not his resurrection. Most believe he never died, delivered from the cross and taken to heaven.

Many of Salafi orientation go as far as saying that Muslims should not even give Easter greetings, lest they encourage a theological error.

Christmas is a national holiday in Egypt, but not Easter.

Even so Christians are administratively equal. They are given vacation time, and recently have even been legally encouraged in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Muslims are to Mecca. 

Of course, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is also a politician, and politicians can say many things to curry favor.

But one, give credit not only for what could have been tepid acknowledgement, but instead is near fervent preaching.

He calls Muslims also in the teachings of Jesus.

And two, give credit to Egypt that if he is only currying favor, he judges the 90 percent of Muslims as at least non-offended by Easter greetings to the 10 percent minority.

Therefore, follow his example, and greet also the Orthodox minority in your own nations. And when the time comes, greet too the Muslims.

Encourage them both, like Sisi, toward greater love and peace.

And Ekhristos Anesti, for those who believe.

Tawadros Tayyib Easter
The Grand Imam and a delegation from al-Azhar greets Pope Tawadros for Easter 2018, via the Coptic Orthodox Spokesman.

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The Christmas Rabbits of C.S. Lewis

Watership Down
(via http://cromeyellow.com/watership-down-by-peter-diamond/)

Creation is alive with the spark of God, often witnessed in the innocence of children. For those made curious by the title, it is actually an amalgam of two oddly related God moments recently experienced through the pen of two celebrated English writers.

The first came through reading Watership Down to my children. The classic Richard Adams epic is the adventure of several rabbits who break away from their warren. A note of foreboding by the youngest of the herd has not been heeded, but his history of keen perception convinces his colleagues among the rabble.

At a resting place along the way, Dandelion comforts the tired rabbits with the tale of Frith, their god.

It is a “How the Elephant got his Trunk” story, for rabbits. Their chief ancestor engaged in friendly witticism with Frith, and eventually found himself in conversation with the deity while bottom-up stuck in hole.

Earlier in the story, Frith multiplied the rabbit’s enemies as the ancestor thumbed his nose at the request to curb his prodigious copulation.

Impressed by the ancestor’s pluck while still vulnerable, Frith blessed the rabbit’s bottom with quickness and speed, with which it can ever evade them—but must run.

It is a delightful creation account, but my oldest daughter remarked Frith isn’t a real god. He is too much akin to his creatures, and too involved in playful banter with his creation.

I explained that the stories of many gods are similar. They live with humans and interact with them.

My younger daughter then piped in, “That’s kinda like our story, too.”

I was struck by her use of the word “story.” To my daughter the Christian story is the implicitly true account of the universe, but her instinctive description of it is as narrative. Unlike her elder sibling, she didn’t mind the resemblance.

A few hours later I was reading a Christianity Today article about a recently discovered article of C.S. Lewis, called “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” originally published in a forgotten issue of the once popular The Strand magazine, but nowhere listed within Lewis’ extensive bibliography.

The article notes Lewis’ observation that despite post-Christian peoples sometimes being called “pagans,” they are nothing of the sort. True pagans inhabited a world full of mystery, magic, and wondrous creatures.

Comparing the two, Lewis wrote, is:

like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. … Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.

The enchantment of pagan reality is superior to a dreary modernity, Lewis thought. He found danger in modern man’s machine-like approach to nature, even to humanity itself.

But Christianity is an interesting middle-ground:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure.

It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying.

It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

In some sense, coming back to my youngest daughter, Christianity is the fulfillment of Frith.

[To note for those truly interested: G.K. Chesterton explored very similar themes in his The Everlasting Man.]

Islam, a post-Christian religion held by most Egyptians we live among, takes great offense at the Christian claim of incarnation. While Allah intervenes in human affairs and may extend his great mercy, it is not fitting that he would become a man, sleep, snore, and defecate.

Frith, meanwhile, created the universe from his droppings. The Muslim impulse is very similar to that of my daughter, where a real god should not be so intimately involved with his creation.

It took the younger child to see it right.

“Every evening, when Frith has done his day’s work and lies calm and easy in the red sky,” wrote Adams, “[the ancestor and his descendants] come out of their holes and feed and play in his sight, for they are his friends, and he has promised them that they can never be destroyed.”

The magic of our ancestors fed the stories of our childhood. Modern man has grown too sophisticated to believe them, and Christianity played a significant role. We are not to fear the world.

The pagans did. Post-pagans, with much Christian help, shook their fear and enslaved their former enchanter. What will set the world—and us—free again?

Christmas is coming.

In one corner there may be snark at notions of traveling stars and virgin birth amid inebriation and the best of consumerism.

In another corner there may be snark at the right number of wise men and the seasonal location of a manger, amid legalism and the best of consumerism.

This year, around the Christmas tree appropriated from our pre-Christian ancestors, be rightfully pagan. Feast. Revel. Sing.

Be also rightfully Christian. Share. Serve. Marvel.

As Lewis wrote to the pseudo-pagans of his day, this may be our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”

It is a lesson far more easily grasped by children. Perhaps also, by rabbits.

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What’s in Your Lunchbox?

Egypt Sandwich

One morning before school, Alexander, our newest kindergartener, was fiddling with Egyptian coins and thinking through options at the school canteen. His eyes lit up when he realized he could buy a milk box … maybe chocolate, maybe strawberry, or maybe banana!

He looked up and asked, as if he had a revelation. “Mom, how do I say, ‘Can I try a sip of that?’ in Arabic?”

My mind immediately thought of a gross juicebox straw that some kid was slobbering all over. Conditioned by American cafeteria germ paranoia, my first answer was, “You can’t ask for a sip of something. Please don’t ever ask for a sip of something, especially at school!”

So instead he asked, “Mom, how do I ask for a bite of something?”

Alexander was just beginning his time on the school playground; clearly this was something he wanted to learn.

But I still wasn’t thrilled. “Iskander [as his name translates in Arabic], do kids ever ask you for a bite? Do they ever ask for some of your food?”

He frowned. “Yes, they always want a pretzel.” At the breakfast table his three sisters immediately chimed in. “Yes, they always want the pretzels!”

It was a cultural revelation. My kids, the Americans, bring weird snacks to school.

Egyptian culture breeds generosity, usually. When a child opens a bag of chips it is common practice to offer to friends. Same with a packet of cookies. What you have is meant to be shared.

Earlier this summer as we visited a school friend, she told her mother, “Layla [our daughter] never brings a sandwich.” She couldn’t comprehend it. She thought we were starving her.

But the system here does not include a lunch break, and to me, a sandwich is lunch. Egyptian kids eat when they get home around between 2-4pm, depending on the traffic.

For them a sandwich is breakfast, eaten at the beginning of the day, often at school.

I grew up on peanut butter and jelly, or perhaps ham and cheese. My kids, meanwhile, have encountered a whole variety of sandwiches, and often get a taste. Usually they are made in a long, thin Kaiser-type roll or pita-type bread.

Inside: French fries. Or scrambled eggs. Perhaps some strange sort of salty white cheese. Maybe liver. Beans, mashed or falafeled.

Our oldest daughter recently attended a church retreat for expat kids. Hosted by Egyptians, she was surprised at the shock other campers had at the French fry sandwiches.

“What could be better to eat for breakfast?” she wondered, telling us over her morning corn flakes.

I am sure our littlest kindergartener will try many “bites” of things in the years to come. Unlike me growing up, hopefully it will expand his palate and encourage him to try new things.

And maybe he’ll also stop frowning when friends ask him for something, and instead, like them, will learn to offer freely.

He has freely received, as the Biblical saying goes.

What’s in your lunch? Can I have a bite?

 

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Distributing Aid to Iraqi Christians

Zalal 7

Five days ago Iraqi Christians were displaced from their city – again. As Fox News reported, they had only recently returned to Teleskof following its liberation from ISIS.

Here are pictures from those trying to help.

The recent Kurdish referendum effort led the Iraqi government to reclaim disputed land held by the Peshmerga forces. Christians were caught in the crossfire, and my Christianity Today story has some of the details.

It also features Ashty Bahro, the head of Zalal Life Civil Society Foundation, and former head of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan.

On the day the refugees fled to nearby al-Qosh, his organization was there to distribute 300 parcels of food and water.

The following pictures were supplied by Zalal Life.

Zalal 8
The license plate reads: Dohuk, Iraq. Bahro is a pastor in Dohuk, 25 miles to the northwest of al-Qosh.

Zalal 1
Bahro described the area as mountainous, with the journey taking about 40 minutes.

Zalal 2
Refugees gathered at the local St. Qarbakh church. Al-Qosh is roughly 30 miles north of Mosul and is home to what is believed to be the burial place of the prophet Nahum, who preached against the Assyrian Empire of his day.

Zalal 4
Containing cheese, meat, tuna, beans, and other foot items.

Zalal 5
Boxes filled with bread. Iraqi bread is traditionally flat and round, shaped similarly to a pizza.

Zalal 6

There is always a cost to war. There are always real people on both sides of charity.

Pictures help us visualize what we are too often able to overlook: Faces.

You don’t have to do anything. In most cases you can’t. Some are chosen to suffer, others are able to help.

Just remember the dignity of all.

UPDATE:

On October 30, Zalal Life was able to return and complement the emergency food supplies with 300 mattresses and blankets. Bahro specifically thanks Steadfast Global and L4L.

Zalal 10
It is not uncommon in the Middle East to see all sorts of vehicles piled high with supplies.

Zalal 11
I liked this picture because it shows a little more of the neighborhood near the church. Looks nice – that doesn’t always come through in refugee situations.

Zalal 13
And this one: Just because kids are so frequently cute.

 

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A Christian Death in the Western Desert

Desert Martyr 4

Egypt suffered another terrorism setback this week, as a shootout with militants in the Western Desert resulted in the death of at least 16 policemen.

That is the official, government tally. International media reported much higher figures, though the government dismissed their numbers and an alleged recording describing the chaos in the field, saying they were unsourced and reflecting unprofessional conduct.

Much speculation focused on the groups behind the attack, whether ISIS from the Sinai, Muslim Brotherhood linked militants, or a rogue army officer perhaps affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The government has launched an investigation, but it is also conducting funerals. Less well reported is this human side of the tragedy, causing Egypt to cancel even a major tourist festival in solidarity with the slain, when the sun shines directly on the face of Ramses II in Abu Simbel.

Desperate to revive the tourism industry, Egypt is more keen to maintain security commitment and morale.

Part of the task is to honor all dead. And among them was Boutros Sulimian Masoud, a Coptic Christian conscript from Ezbat Yacoub Bibawi in Minya. Military figures and Azhar sheikhs were on hand, draping his casket with an Egyptian flag.

Also honored was an army officer named Muhammad Wahid Musalhi. Bishop Makarios of Minya represented the church in both occasions.

And both figures are called ‘martyrs’, as per Egyptian practice, by both church and state.

Consider what you will theologically, but Egypt has suffered a multiplication of martyrs in recent years.

On the one hand, where the term is more familiar, Christians have been targeted by terrorists, though Muslims have also died in the carnage.

On the other, the army and police have been targeted by terrorists, irrespective of religion. Egypt is understood to be 10 percent Christian, and they die beside their brothers in the service.

The Egyptian security services are integrated, drawing all in general conscription. Copts sometimes complain they are kept out of senior positions until promotion at retirement, and that conscript deaths sometimes are under-investigated. But they are grateful for their place in the national army.

It was only in the mid-19th century that the Muhammad Ali dynasty lifted the jizia tax and enrolled Copts. Classical Islamic jurisprudence says that jizia is meant in part to protect Christians living in a Muslim country, that they need not participate in foreign jihad or defense of the nation.

But one of the most powerful proofs of citizenship is mingled blood, fighting side by side against a common enemy.

The pictures here were distributed by the Coptic Media Center and represent Egypt as she idealizes herself. One nation, three religions, one people mourning all.

It does not cover up the flaws, but it is a reminder to Muslim and Christian alike of what Egypt is meant to be.

This, too, is important to report.

Desert Martyr 2

Desert Martyr 3

Desert Martyr 1

Tahya Masr, al-baqa’ li-llah, nayyihhum.

 

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Muslims Work for Religious Freedom, in Italy

MWL1
(via the Muslim World League)

Some of the articles I’ve written concern interfaith efforts to secure religious freedom, particularly in Muslim nations.

Two days ago, the Saudi-based Muslim World League met with the Italian Minister of the Interior to best secure Muslim rights in the traditionally Catholic nation.

In a helpful explanation from the 2016 US Report on International Religious Freedom, Italy has a series of “accords” with recognized religious groups in the nation.

The Catholic Church is separate from the government but does have a unique accord privileging it somewhat above the 12 other Christian denominations and religious groups. Accords are signed through the Ministry of the Interior, and grant tax-deductible status, state financial support, property rights, clergy recognition, and religious holiday waivers for students and employees. Non-accord groups can apply for these benefits on a case-by-case basis.

Muslims do not have an accord with the government.

Part of the issue may be that Muslims have no administrative entity governing their affairs. Among the topics discussed with the minister is the role of the Muslim World League to help unify the local Muslim community, and secure Islam as a recognized religion.

Italy lauded the MWL for its role in spreading the values of tolerance and coexistence.

A few days earlier the secretary-general of the MWL met Pope Francis, and agreed to set up a joint committee to pursue the values issued in their statement:

  • Religion and violence are incompatible
  • Religions have moral resources capable of contributing to fraternity and peace
  • The phenomenon of fundamentalism, in particular when violent, is troubling and joint efforts are required to counter it
  • Situations exist where freedom of conscience and of religion are not entirely respected and protected
  • There is an urgent need to remedy this, renewing religious discourse and reviewing school books

This is a worthy statement, though the urgent need would seem to require more than the suggested remedies. Yes, these would help change a culture over the long term. But laws guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion are currently lacking in several countries within the Muslim World League.

Perhaps the statement is a polite and friendly way to begin to address this, without the shame associated with naming names – as does the US Report on International Religious Freedom.

The statement of religion and violence being incompatible is also curious. Islam has a well-defined tradition of religiously sanctioned jihad. It need not be equated with terrorism, but neither is it exactly equivalent to Christian just war theory. I find it strange the Muslim World League could sign on to such a clause, without further delineation.

But they are discussing the right things. The common criticism of interfaith statements of toleration is that Muslims do not practice what they preach in their own countries.

It remains to be seen if the Muslim World League will act on these principles, but it is encouraging that the Vatican has a joint committee to hold them responsible.

And, to be held responsible. In coordination with the MWL, Italy has taken steps to better ensure the religious freedom of minority faiths.

Do note when Muslim nations do the same.

 

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Why Egyptians Get Confused by Our American Children’s Names

Arabic English Names

Names don’t work the same in every culture.

We realized this six years ago, when our oldest daughter came home from her first days of school with “Emma Jaison” printed on her books. Her name is Emma Hope Casper, which I clearly wrote on all her official forms.

But I also filled out the ever-important question of her father’s name, my husband, Jayson. As per Egyptian pattern, her name became Emma Jayson, though in practice Ema or Amy, Jaison or Jasen, depending on how they guessed these strange names to be spelled.

A quick lesson in the Egyptian naming system is required. When a baby is born, parents choose the first name, just as they would in America. But that is the choice available, and the rest of the name is determined by family.

Every baby’s second name is its father’s name, even if she is a girl. The third name is the baby’s grandfather’s name—that of the father’s father. The fourth and final name for official paperwork is that of the great-grandfather, and unofficially stretches back through the generations.

To be honest, we are still confused about any actual “family name”. Some people seem to have something to correspond with Smith or MacDonald, although it would be something along the lines of Masri (from Egypt) or Tantawi (from Tanta). But we can’t quite figure out how that works with the pattern above.

Each of our three daughters have similarly returned from kindergarten with their name changed. Our second became Hannah Jayson, though alternately spelled: Hanah, Hana, or Hanna.

Trying to get it right in discussion with school administration, our third daughter’s first name, Layla, got combined with her second, Peace. But her papers came back:  Lailapes Jaison. I almost couldn’t figure out what it said.

Granted, transliteration between English and Arabic isn’t easy. But he mix-ups in name have sometimes bothered our girls. A simple name like Emma Hope has become Amahoub. Hannah Mercy was eventually spelled correctly, with her a different issue emerged.

In kindergarten, Hannah was known only as Hannah Jayson, but when she entered first grade, they added her actual middle name. This happened the same year that the former president Mohamed Morsy was deposed.

But when you write Mercy in Arabic script it looks just like Morsy, since Arabic writing leaves out the short vowels. And since the word “mercy” in English looks nothing like its translation in Arabic (rahma), everyone assumed she was similarly named to the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

Plenty of people here hated the Brotherhood, but Morsi is a fine and common name—among Muslims. While plenty of names have no religious marker, Abanoub or Shenouda signify a Christian, while Mohamed or Morsi indicate the child is a Muslim.

So the teachers wondered: Why is Hannah Morsy enrolled in the Christian religion class?

Click here to read more about our kids and religious education in Egypt.

Even more confusing for the teachers is how Emma “Hobe” and Hannah “Morsy” are sisters to begin with, with different names for their father. Add in Lailapes Jaison and you really confuse them!

We thought we would make things easier for our son Alexander, who is now entering kindergarten.

Click here to read the different naming options we considered, with pros and cons for each in Egypt.

My husband’s middle name is the same as his father’s, so to honor both the family and the Egyptian pattern, we did the same. He is Alexander Jayson (father’s name) Charles (grandfather’s name). His last name is still Casper, as we can’t imitate them in everything.

But it won’t be that easy. We commonly call him by the Arabic equivalent of Alexander, Iskander. He goes by both, and much as a four-and-a-half-year-old understands these things, he knows they are both his names.

But when he gets to school, what will he say his name is? Will he write Iskander in Arabic class, but Alexander in English? And how many people will just call him Alex, anyway?

Despite the confusion for each of our kids, we teach them their names were chosen with care. We display them in our living room, that they might be esteemed by child and guest alike.

English-speaking friends sometimes curiously notice the semi-strange middle names, and Arabic-speaking friends are often altogether confused. But wholesome discussion usually follows.

Hope, Mercy, and Peace—each a desirable virtue for life, paired with a corresponding Bible verse we trust they will internalize.

Our son’s pattern is different, and his sign requires more explanation. Alexander was the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Of his two middle names, may he follow and become a third generation of faith.

Children grow old and develop their character. But a name is the one thing we give them they keep their whole lives. Their identity will be shaped by many, and their path is their own.

But we have the responsibility to shape their foundation, beginning with that first official form.

Our Hope is that they grow up with the Mercy to let others misunderstand them, the internal Peace to know who they truly are, and a family history to teach them whose cross they are privileged to carry.

Name Signs

 

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A Long Good-Bye, From Far Away

Tayta and Taxi

Today, September 12, would have been my mother-in-law’s 67th birthday.

Tayta, as our children call her, passed away six months ago. She fought courageously through two bouts of cancer, and the first time she triumphed. The second time, she succumbed. We remember her well, but the relationship will never be the same.

Complicating things completely is that we live in Egypt, an ocean away, where she visited us consistently. Jayson, my husband, got word she wasn’t doing well, and should come home immediately, just in case.

One day later, Tayta breathed her last. She was surrounded by her children and husband, and died peacefully.

But the children and I were not there. Immediate preparations are difficult for a large family, and we had the idea that we would follow Jayson a bit later. There was no guarantee she would die.

With only a few hours before Jayson had to travel, we tried to gently explain to the kids that Tayta was not doing well and it was important for Daddy to go be with her. And as she might die soon, all of us will go to see her as soon as we can.

The kids were saddened by this news, yet not totally surprised. Through Skype a few days earlier they saw that Tayta was not feeling well, even though she still had her same spirit and sense of humor.

But with Jayson in the air, the message came that Tayta entered hospice care. My prayer was that the boys would make it in time to see their mom, but it also hit me that we likely would not. And almost as bad, I had to tell the kids.

Funny the things you don’t think about, and living abroad perhaps it should have been obvious. But I never expected I’d lose a loved one and not be there, nor that my husband and I would not be together.

Years ago, Jayson and I were privileged to receive training in how to handle grief. One of the principles is to communicate clearly with your kids about what is happening, without trying to be strong for them. To let them see how this loss affects you, and learn appropriately.

Another principle is the importance of saying good-bye and communicating important statements, if possible, while the person is still alive.

I wasn’t sure how much time we had, so before school I recorded each of them saying, “I love you, Tayta,” recalling different memories and things they appreciated. It was somewhat easy for them, as they didn’t know the full reality, and now was not the time to tell them.

But privately, I blubbered through my whole recording, knowing that I wasn’t going to see her alive again.

After school, it was time to talk honestly. It was a hard conversation. They loved her very much, and it was a shock to hear she would die before they saw her. We cried together a long time.

Meanwhile, Jayson was grieving in New Jersey. He had spent most of his day with his father and brothers by his mom’s bedside, holding her hand, sometimes talking to her, and not seeing much response.

It was hard to grieve with him and for him from so far away.

Skyping later, we gave the kids the option of seeing a very sickly Tayta on screen as we played their videos in front of her near-comatose body. They chose not to, at first. I did, and it was hard to look. She was no longer who I remembered, and she didn’t respond as I talked.

But perhaps she heard; hospice workers say that it is often the last sense to go.

Afterwards the kids came back into the room one by one, and bravely looked at Tayta and said their good-byes. They cried with Sidu, as we call my father-in-law.

Our oldest daughter recited Psalm 23, and we also laughed and smiled at some good memories. It was a hard time, but a good time.

Tayta died later that evening, and the kids stayed home from school. We had a full day to cry when we wanted to, laugh when we could, and do some things that Tayta would do with them … like Play-doh and bubbles. It was a hard day, but a good day.

We Skyped with Jayson a few hours later, and I saw the empty living room where we had so many memories, but also where her hospice bed had held her. Just like that it was gone, as was Tayta.

It hit me: The loss of a special mother-in-law. The loss of a grandmother to my kids. The loss of a mother to my husband. The loss of a wife to my father-in-law, who now has his whole life turned upside down. And the loss of a friend, as her many close relationships reached out through Facebook and email.

If I was there, I could have more easily shared in this grief, at least some of it. But as we made plans to travel back for the memorial service, I grieved also that we must continue to grieve apart, and from afar.

The tears still come sometimes. They did as I wrote this and remembered the pain of saying good-bye. They will flow again when we return to the states for a visit, and she isn’t there to read books to the kids or laugh at her sons’ playful arguments at the game table.

But sadness isn’t the only emotion that fills me when I think of Tayta. There are good memories every time we discuss her with the kids. They have her dolls; we have her pictures. Today we made apple pie, her favorite dessert.

We miss her a lot, but we said good-bye well. It was hard, but it was good.

Tayta and Apple Pie

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Happy Birthday: The First Coptic Church in North America

 

St. Mark's Church Toronto
St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Toronto

At least in urban and suburban America, it seems like Copts are everywhere. There is an

Orthodox Church a town over from where I grew up in New Jersey. I played soccer with an Egyptian Christian in high school.

Strange to think then, the church in North America is only 39-years-old, today.

Technically that is not quite true. The first weekly liturgy was held over a decade earlier in 1964, and spiritual meetings began in 1959, if not earlier.

But on September 8, 1978, St. Mark’s became the first Coptic Orthodox church built in North America, in Toronto, Canada.

The story is simple, and as a North American who has received much Coptic kindness, I am glad to report my continental forefathers helped along the way.

Elias Wagdy Abdel-Messih, who came to the US to study ethnomusicology, met with other prominent Copts and helped organized the first meetings in New York. By 1961 they drew together the first wave of Coptic immigrants from across the eastern seaboard, and celebrated Easter in a small town in Pennsylvania. That same summer in Chicago the Coptic American Association was established during a conference in Chicago.

Fr. Makary El-Souriany was dispatched from Egypt on repeated visits, and eventually ordained Abdel-Messih as Fr. Marcos Marcos, on August 9, 1964

As an aside, Fr. Makary would eventually be consecrated Bishop Samuel, responsible for nationwide Coptic social services. He was killed during the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.

But Fr. Marcos became responsible for all of North America, and moved to Toronto in 1964, holding regular services also in Montreal and New York. His choice was not particularly strategic – the United States granted him a visitor’s visa, while Canada offered immigration.

Eventually churches would be established in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Boston in the United States, and Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver in Canada.

Fr. Marcos became known as ‘the flying priest’ for his extensive travels. The pattern continued until the arrival of Fr. Raphael Nakhla from Egypt in 1967, when they divided responsibilities into east and west.

St. Mark's Church Toronto 2

The early Toronto liturgy, however, was held in a kindergarten at St. Mildred’s College, an Anglican school, serving 36 Coptic families. In 1965 the Anglican Holy Trinity Church offered their upstairs chapel to the Coptic community, and in 1968 the Anglicans gave full use of St. Matthias. In 1970 they moved again, leasing the United Church for $1 per year.

In 1977 this building was sold, and the church had to move again into a school auditorium. But that same year the church obtained an acre of land, in the neighborhood of Agincourt, Scarborough, Toronto, for $1.

The church specifically thanks Revs. Hunt, Chote, Fisk, Palmer, Roberts, and Lee for their kindness. Dr. McClure offered the lease; Mr. McClintoch sold the land.

Groundbreaking took place quickly, to coincide with the visit of Pope Shenouda to Toronto. And today, 19 years ago, Bishop Ruweis of the diocese of North America presided over the church consecration. Seventeen Coptic Orthodox priests from around the region helped officiate.

The church underwent expansion in 1992, and now includes a cultural center and Coptic museum.

Today St. Mark’s serves 500 families and 4000 parishioners. It is one of 37 Coptic Orthodox churches in Canada; the United States has over 200. The population estimate of the Coptic diaspora worldwide ranges from 1-2 million. Country estimates vary widely, from 100,000 to one million in the US, and up to 50,000 in Canada. The 2011 Canadian census listed their number at 16,000, which dramatically rose from 5,000 in the 1991 census.

I have not visited the church personally, though it would be nice to do so one day. I hope I will find continuing good relationships with the surrounding churches and community.

I would be surprised if it was not so.

Perhaps we can play soccer together.

The information above was collected from a pamphlet issued by St. Mark’s Church shortly before its 1978 consecration, a 2008 MA thesis of Rachel Loewen, for McMaster University, and the St. Mark’s church website. The photos are from the Away with Joanna blog.

UPDATE: Michael Akladios provides additional information and a different timeline in this Facebook comment.

He also writes: “Documentation for this history is available in the Toronto Anglican Diocesan Archive, the Toronto United Church Archive, and Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa; once again proving that Copts must find better means of preserving and maintaining their own history.”

I would trust his version above my own, but a thorough and more fitting article would do well to verify his and multiple sources.

This post is simply meant to make a digital record of an interesting pamphlet I stumbled upon in Cairo, for purpose similar to his: To promote a memory and further understanding.

Preserving history is much more difficult, and all are welcome to help iron it out here – and more importantly, in the archives he references.

The comment below, from Sylvia Marcos, daughter-in-law to the flying priest, is welcome reference for all who are interested.

St. Mark's Church Toronto 3

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The Uneasy Life of a Middle East Skeleton

Max the Skeleton and Family

Meet Max. In skeleton-years he is at least 55.

Max came to our home about three years ago, and I must confess we have not treated him very well. At the time of his arrival our young children had Egyptian friends playing over the house, and we are unsure if there was any unspoken trauma from a dead man being hauled through the front door.

The friends have continued to come, so no great damage done. But uncertain comments from parents convinced us to keep him in the storage room thereafter.

Accessible, but out of the way. Part of the house, but not part of life. I suppose that’s fitting—being dead and all—but it still seems cruel.

In the Middle East it is often observed that some parents hide away children with mental or physical disabilities. This pattern is changing, but a sense of shame has condemned many to at-home isolation.

Have we treated Max similarly?

The cultural pattern for death is somewhat similar. Muslim tradition demands a body be buried almost immediately. Unlike the West where a mortician will preserve for final goodbyes at a later-scheduled funeral, the shock of death is quickly muted. So also is grief, at least for half of society. Women may wail and cry out in pain. Men are expected to resign themselves to the will of God, and move on.

So for those who knew, it must have been very strange that we have dead bones in our closet.

Or, had. We recently moved Max to a suitable institution, finding for him a welcoming home. But we signed no paperwork, neither to receive him nor pass him on.

Here also we may resemble Middle East culture. Children in difficult situations may be taken in by relatives or others, but there is no formal adoption. Islam forbids the transfer of family heritage, lest ancient lineages become corrupted.

But we should pause here and say a word about Max. Consistent with all the above-mentioned taboos, we have so far ignored him and spoken only about ourselves and the expectations that press upon the region.

Unfortunately, we cannot say much.

Max likely belonged to a medical school in Cairo at least as far back as 1962. The sister of an Egyptian friend graduated from the university, did her internship, and somehow came in possession of what must have been a favored learning tool.

In time, much like in our story but considerably worse for him, Max wound up in a trunk in her parent’s basement. Several years later our friend found him, and passed him on to her friend taking a dental exam. Max doesn’t have too many teeth, but I suppose his jaw was sufficient.

This was around the same time we visited our friend. It is hard to recall the conversation, but one of our daughters must have expressed an interest in science. Perhaps we even asked about a skeleton, if the plastic versions were available in Egypt.

Little did we know our friend had the real thing. After succeeding in the dental exam, our friend’s friend drove Max to our home, where he has resided since.

 

Until now. We have changed apartments, and in the purge we had to make a decision about Max. I would love for him to rest next to one of our children’s beds, or even dwell with us in the family room. We value learning – we have maps on our walls, we have books on our shelves.

But we also have friends who visit. I recently brought back from America a favored wall hanging of a ‘Wise Old Owl who lived in an oak,’ that was in my room since childhood. We displayed it prominently, until Egyptian friends reminded us that an owl is an ill omen in Arab culture. So much for wisdom.

The owl poem continues: ‘The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that bird?’

Applying the poem with its cultural implications suggested we should at least move the owl to the privacy of our bedroom. And perhaps it suggested also the fate of Max.

Until fate intervened. In lamenting Max on Facebook during our moving process, friends in the administration of a local international school mentioned they had long desired a skeleton. Our oldest daughter was joining the student body after doing her elementary years in the Egyptian system, so it seemed a perfect match.

We restore Max to his original educational purpose, but family is still there to help with his transition.

The last question was how to move him. Around the time Max came to our home I purchased a medical IV stand, and the hook in his head hung him in place.

We amusedly considered rolling him down the street in procession with our family, but thought the neighbors already consider us odd enough foreigners.

 

Max in Car

In the end the school came with a car, and we laid Max down on the lowered back seat.

Perhaps it recalled one of no-longer-alive-Max’s first memories.

Despite the lightness of this post, there is a serious point. Christians believe two things about Max: He was made in God’s image, and he will be bodily resurrected.

Different cultures demand different customs concerning the dead. But immediate burial, final viewing, preserving relics, quiet cremation, and funeral pyres are all expressions of the same impulse: Honor.

A principle means of honoring life is right treatment in death. There is something sacred that lingers. It must be remembered.

It may also be employed. God intends us to enjoy our life, but to find this enjoyment in service of others. Death can be an extension: When my mother died, she donated her body to science.

Maybe Max did the same.

In any case, he has a new home. The school may or may not struggle with the same issues we did, but at least Max is now back to his proper place in education.

We don’t know the details, but perhaps Max also knew God’s proper place in life. May we all, before we all become Max.

Emma and Max the Skeleton

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Is Sex Slavery Legal in Islam?

Yazidi Sex Slaves
(via REUTERS/Ari Jala)

In my recent post about al-Azhar and the doctrine they spread around the world, one reader offered this question in the comments:

Someone I know wrote an article about Islam recently and made the statement that, according to his knowledge, official Islam has never condemned the action of ISIS soldiers in raping Yazidi women. He made several other statements I didn’t particularly like, but on this point, he is saying they cannot condemn such treatment because Muhammad did this sort of thing and even gave his troops permission to do the same. Have you ever come across any statement that al-Azhar believes such action is wrong?

First of all, a little context, excerpted from an article in the National Catholic Register on the same topic:

In the Quran, slave girls are referred to as “those whom your right hand possess,” … Verse 4:3 allows a man to have up to four wives but advises that if he can’t deal fairly with all of them, he should marry only one, or else resort to “those whom your right hand possess.” Verse 4:2 says that men are forbidden to have sex with married women “except those whom your right hand possess. It is a decree of Allah for you.”

The article also draws from traditions about Muhammad. These have varying degrees of reliability but are regarded as an authentic source in principle. I cannot comment on these specific traditions mentioned, but they are provided in well-attributed collections.

After the assault on the Jews of Khaybar, Muhammad ordered that a leader of the tribe, Kinana bin al-Rabi, be tortured until he disclosed the location of the group’s treasure. A fire was lit on Kinana’s chest but, as he still refused to reveal the secret, Muhammad had him beheaded. Muhammad had promised Kinana’s young wife, Safiya, to another Muslim, but, after hearing of her beauty, he went back on his word and took her in “marriage” for himself. By some accounts, this occurred only hours after he dispatched her husband. (Ishaq, p. 515; Bukhari, 1. 8. 367).

The issue of sex slaves in Muslim history and interpretation is of course contested, but what do Muslim authorities do with it today?

Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar, has strongly denounced the Takfiri Daesh [ISIS] terrorists’ newly-released rules for sex slavery, stressing that they have nothing to do with Islam.

“This organization is a criminal and terrorist organization, and one of the goals of terrorism is the spread of its ideologies and the spread of its propaganda that will attract people’s attention,” Mohamed Mehna, a member of al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh’s Technical office, said on Wednesday. (from Press TV)

This alone should satisfy the question from the original comment, asking only if official Islam condemned the action.

But maybe something in ISIS’ rationale was deficient, it could be asked. That is, while their specific action is condemned, does the practice still has an Islamic basis?

Consider then this document, called A Letter to Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State. The list of signatories includes representatives of official Islam from around the world, including Egypt.

It criticizes the Islamic State on several points, and this is from the executive summary:

10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.

11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.

12. The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.

‘Consensus’ is an important word here. While it does imply anti-slavery developments around the world, in which Muslim nations share, it also is a term of Islamic jurisprudence.

Sharia is developed from different sources, but ijma’, or consensus of the scholars, is one of the essentials. Here is how point 12 is developed in the letter:

No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam’s aims is to abolish slavery …

For over a century, Muslims, and indeed the entire world, have been united in the prohibition and criminalization of slavery, which was a milestone in human history when it was finally achieved …

After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this; you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition (fitnah), and corruption and lewdness on the earth.

You have resuscitated something that the Shari’ah has worked tirelessly to undo and has been considered forbidden by consensus for over a century. Indeed all the Muslim countries in the world are signatories of anti-slavery conventions.

Where I have placed three dots it represents the letter quoting from the Quran to establish its points. I admit I followed some of the logic, but not all of it. But I am hardly a scholar. Read yourself to review.

But the fact is that these are the words of many of the highest Islamic authorities around the world. It is a shame this fact is not more widely known.

Still, though I know the basics of the principle of ijma’, I am still curious about the question posed in the comment and cemented in the Catholic journal. If something was permitted by Islam at Muhammad’s time, can it really be condemned absolutely?

One scholar I asked told me that in the story above, Muhammad married Safiya in order to end the practice of sex slavery. When their prophet set her free and married her, his companions could do no less with those they captured. He tells me this related in the literature.

Getting into the details of this question requires far more study than I have yet done and this post allows. Here are two links to competing sides. But here are a few principles as it is considered.

One, there are many Muslims whose interpretive system requires near-absolute fidelity to the earliest practices of the Islamic community. Through them we are often convinced this is normative Islam. It makes sense, but is it necessary? Islam has a long history and an interpretive framework that has adjusted to time and place. Shall Muslims not be given the freedom of development, if they work to claim it in fidelity with their sources?

Two, there are many commands and practices in the Bible that Christians today consider obsolete, though they came through God’s command. There is not absolute symmetry here with Islam; the religions are different and have different interpretive systems. But give pause before declaring offensive an attribute of Islam, lest the accusation be returned. For those who reject all religion in general, of course, this is less applicable.

Three, for everyone, find a balance in critical charity and charitable criticism. Islam, like all religions and worldviews, deserves its hard questions given its universal claims. But Muslims are individual human beings . Like many others, many Muslims cherish their faith without delving into all the details. Take care before bludgeoning anyone with details we also know little about.

Islam may be true or erroneous, it may engender virtue or vice. But of Muslims, honor them to the degree they seek to honor both God and humanity. Where they are deficient, remember, we all are too.

 

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An Iraqi Refugee Leads Us Home

Iraqi Refugees
(via Time, Muhammed Muheisen—AP. Image is of Yazidis.)

Abu Rafi surveyed what once was a familiar scene.

Displaced from Qaraqosh, Iraq by the marauding ISIS forces, his family of ten fled to Kurdistan where he secured a two bedroom apartment.

Now with ISIS in retreat, he traveled back to see the wreckage.

Their home was robbed and burned. They used to host many friends; now the sofa and dining table are gone. They had a garden; it is ruined. Grandkids picked oranges, and ran barefoot on the green grass.

Now they are just memories, though the process of repair and repainting has begun.

From Kurdistan he lamented with Lilian Samaan, the American Bible Society’s strategic ministries advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “I have my daughters and son around me, alive and well. That is what matters most.”

Samaan asks us to empathize, but also more. We must recognize first that Arab refugees in America almost universally share this desire to go home.

“Their old home, their garden, their church, their priest, their community,” she said, “all that once was is now lost, all gone.”

We might want to help, she says, but it is not that simple. These were a proud people, violated thoroughly. Their honor has been damaged, and their need of assistance is a further source of shame.

“A gentle approach and a posture of learning, listening and asking the right questions,” she counsels, “will allow access to support in a dignified way.”

It is kind and wise advice, but also personal. Samaan is originally from Jordan – not a refugee but an immigrant who sees herself in many she now comes along side of.

What made the difference for her was respect.

“I was welcomed into homes, cherished like a daughter, and trusted like a friend,” she said. “At work and at church on the North Side of Chicago, my contributions and gifts were acknowledged and appreciated, as an immigrant.”

And if American Christians can go a step further, they might reverse their roles. Samaan urges the church to become disciples of those washing up on their shore.

“I believe the American church is in a privileged position to have such people of history and faith in its midst,” she said. It’s a golden opportunity to come alongside refugees from these areas, hear their story, acknowledge their pain, affirm their honor and resilience, and minister to them with presence and friendship.”

And in the process, learn.

“Can we become disciples of the minority church, the persecuted church?” she asked. “Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to commune with a church that has suffered but survived persecution over many centuries, demonstrating patient resilience?

“It could be that this is a moment for us in the West to step aside, lay down our ideologies and agendas, and allow the Church in the East to propose its own solutions, and with our support, lead us.”

Abu Rafi will soon lead his family home. Can we, in spirit, join him?

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The Coptic Church in Japan

Pope Tawadros II leads mass prayers for Egyptians beheaded in Libya, at Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo
(via Reuters/The Japan Times)

There may be three million Christians in Japan, one percent of the population. They now have a Coptic Orthodox Church among their options.

Egypt’s Pope Tawadros arrived on August 26 to consecrate Japan’s first Coptic Orthodox congregation, the Church of St. Mary and St. Mark.

Tawadros hailed the cooperation between Japan and Egypt, especially the new initiative to establish Japanese schools to better the education system. He praised the Japanese people for their renaissance following nuclear disaster, and their ongoing commitment to peace.

The church, he said, preaches love in every place. The church is a mother, who searches for her children wherever they are.

And the church does not stay still. As St. Mark traveled the ancient world to come to Egypt, so the church today comes to Japan.

The church was first built one year ago in Kyoto, on July 16. Around 100 people attended in the opening, including many nationalities of Eastern Orthodox rite. There are around 20 member families, though the church welcomes all and seeks to serve Japanese society. Language lessons in Arabic and Japanese are one expression of this desire.

The first mass, however, was held in 2004 by Bishop Daniel of the Sydney Diocese of Australia, to which the Japanese church belongs. St. Mary and St. Mark Church has also joined the Japanese Confederation of Christian Churches.

Nestorian Christianity was the first to reach Japan, perhaps as early as the 5th century. St. Francis Xavier is credited as the first modern missionary, in 1549. His efforts faced severe persecution, chronicled in the book Silence, by Shusaku Endo, and now made into a feature film starring Liam Neeson.

Protestants and Orthodox came in the 19th century. Interestingly, eight Japanese prime ministers have been Christians.

“God loves the world and everyone in it,” said Tawadros. “The church knows no geography.”

Coptic Japan
(via the Coptic Media Center)

UPDATED:

Perhaps the best evidence is the Japanese character of the church. In addition to a Japanese language mass, two of the three deacons consecrated by Pope Tawadros were Japanese.

Japan Coptic Deacons
(via Coptic Media Center)

Even so, they were identified by their Coptic/Christian names: Tawadros, Makarios, and Athanasius.

“We hope that God will bless them and they will become great servants of this church,” said Tawadros, interviewed in Japan by CTV.

“The church has a spiritual role to present salvation and encourage repentance, but it must also have a role in society according to the local needs,” he continued.

“This is the idea of St. Mark himself.”

Pope Tawadros was received in Japan by the Egyptian ambassador, toured the Tokyo Museum, and met the mayor of Tokyo.

His visit also attracted the attention of the Japanese media, with this clip presented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization.

 

The Coptic Media Center provided translation:

Title: People: Egyptian Christian Church- First visit to Japan for the Pope of the Coptic church

Picture: Pope Francis & H.H. Pope Tawadros II

Reporter: The person here standing next to Pope Francis is the Coptic Orthodox pope, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II. The first Coptic Orthodox church was established in Japan and H.H. came to Japan for the first time. Yesterday, he conducted a holy liturgy.
What kind of holy liturgy was it, I wonder?

Beyond the doors, you can hear a unique sound of prayers. Last year in October, a Coptic church was established in Japan. H.H. Pope Tawadros II conducted a holy liturgy there. At the holy liturgy, there were 100 church members gathered from around Japan.

Mr. Michel Youssef (church member): This is the first Coptic church in Japan and we are very happy that H.H. Pope Tawadros from Egypt had come today.

Reporter: The Coptic holy liturgy style had been continuing from ancient times. Icons of saints are on the wall and that had been brought from Egypt. The ladies cover their heads with scarves and (the Copts) respect and follow the traditions. But on the other hand, Japanese is used in the holy liturgy, and the clergy use PC tablets in their holy liturgy and it shows that they are keeping up with the modern technology.

The Coptic Orthodox church was founded around the 1st century, it is said that 10% of the Egyptian population are Coptic Christians. The Copts (Coptic community) have spread overseas to other countries such as Japan and Canada. One of the background reason for this is the presence of a group of Muslims (in Egypt) that considers Copts like enemies.

Rosemary: I think when they hear hate speeches like “kill people from other religions” that turns into persecution (against Copts).

Reporter: Continuously churches have been attacked because I.S. terrorists’ main aim is to attack churches. Regarding this issue, H.H. Pope Tawadros II commented on this:

H.H. Pope Tawadros II (Japanese subtitle): Terrorism divides the Egyptian people but Egypt is a strong country. (Addressing to Japanese people): let’s meet in Egypt.

Tomorrow night we will broadcast a Coptic studies researcher from Göttingen university (Mr. So Miyagawa) who will talk about how the Coptic clergy gives out information for Copts around the world. Please look forward to it tomorrow night.

I will update this post further if the follow-up video becomes available.

 

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God in the Little Things, For Us

Car Keys Syria

For the first time in my life, I locked the keys in the car. Worse, it was borrowed. All the movie tricks with wire hangers came into my mind, but none seemed like they’d work. I was stuck.

Stuck an hour away from home. With two of my kids, picking them up from camp. One eager dorm leader suggested we break the back window. It would be cheap and easy to fix, he said. He’d do it right now with his fist. Seemed like the only way out at the time.

But then one after another, God brought solutions.

There was a spare key back in Cairo, but in the apartment of our friends who let us borrow the car. I called my wife, who was at Bible study in the international church offices.

She quick asked a friend, who coincidentally was right then going to that apartment to take the house sitter to the beach for the weekend.

My wife got a ride over, and got the key. Fifteen minutes later and we would have been lost.

Back at the campsite, another father overheard the dilemma and offered us a ride home.

Once there, spare key in hand, our whole family piled into the Uber. I had planned to take the two girls to the near-to-camp expansive mall to hear about their experience. Now, we could all go, and experience their joy all at once.

And this week, Uber even offered a 30 percent discount.

An hour later we unlocked the car. Several hours later, we came home exhausted.

It could have been a disaster. But one small coincidence after the other had the handprint of God, making the day even better than we expected.

It also came with a valuable lesson to discuss with the kids: All things work together for good, to those who love God. Let’s not complain, but wait expectantly.

I believe this.

But don’t you think it is also a little crass and self-serving? One day later marked the four-year anniversary of several hundred protestors killed, as their sit-in camp was cleared by authorities.

Our nation borders a territory that is hemmed in on all sides, an open-air prison. One nation over is torn by civil war and terrorism.

Yet God arranged quick access to a spare key, so I could get home more conveniently. So I could take my whole family to a food court.

That’s a different lesson to share with the kids, isn’t it? Believe me, I tried. Their eager celebration of God’s goodness shifted into sullen confusion. Death and destruction can do that to a dinner conversation.

We talked through the possibilities. A Syrian refugee opened our favorite ice cream shop across the street, and is doing great business. God did well to work that out for good, right?

Our good, absolutely. Best and cheapest ice cream in town. But I’m sure he’d rather be back home.

The Syrians are Muslims, was one possibility. Maybe God worked things out for us because we’re Christians?

Perhaps there is some fidelity there to the verse above. But a good number of those Syrians are Christians, too. One kid shot it down more broadly. God would want to do good to everyone.

Maybe that’s it? There are bad people in the world, destroying God’s good? Certainly, but is God’s good coming? It’s hard to see, and a long time in coming.

One child recalled the Israelites in the wilderness. Already in a tough situation, God sent snakes to kill many when they grumbled. Sometimes disaster is discipline, even punishment.

True, but hardly satisfying when we consider the tragedies of another.

Sullen, and glum. There are no easy answers.

There are things we don’t understand, I told them. Even more so, Jesus foretold difficulties for those who follow him. He was not saved from the cross, and this should not be forgotten in the hope of ‘all things good’.

God has given different promises to those who suffer. He is with them in the middle of it. Many have said their fellowship with him has been closest during the harshest times of trial.

And we must not forget, in heaven, one day, all will be good. The resolution is coming.

Until then, we have a choice.

Was the car key episode simply a series of well-timed coincidences? Yeah, maybe.

Or was it the loving hand of a personal God upon his wayward creation and adopted son?

Which would you rather?

We do not need to extrapolate the universe to find his favor in the little things. But neither should we believe the universe revolves around us.

There is blessing, and there is suffering. In faith we hold that both work out for good, even when we cannot see it.

It is not my place to find the good in Syria. That is up to the Syrians. It is up to God. I can help as I am able, but I dare not interpret.

Sometimes lessons are simpler for children than adults; I don’t think this is one of them. But best they hear them now, I think, than struggle with them later. There is mystery in our faith, and it cannot be avoided forever.

But likely, a child will take it to heart much more readily than we will.

If this is the good from a neglected car key, it is sufficient. Far better than a ride home and a family night out.

But thank you, God, for those little things also. For us.

And, take care of the Syrians. Amen.

 

 

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Personal

Are American Evangelicals Not Political Enough?

Trump Team
(Photo: NBC News)

It is certain that President Trump is something different. Having campaigned as an anti-establishment figure, he behaves as neither a Democrat or a Republican, but independent of all.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. He wanted to drain the swamp.

But this last week, having watched from afar the character of figures he draws to his team, I wonder: Where are the evangelicals?

(Note: the main individual in this saga has just resigned. Some say his sole purpose was to force out another figure. In any case, I hope the following thoughts are still pertinent and helpful.)

Polls show that white evangelical Christians are the constituency with his highest approval ratings. That’s fine, it is a holdover from the traditional support they have given the Republican Party.

Many evangelical leaders rallied around him before and after the inauguration. That’s fine, it is a privilege and responsibility to advise the president.

Some have questioned the wisdom and Biblical fidelity in wedding the religious identity to the political, and I am sympathetic.

Others posit that a political alliance does not mean all allies share conviction and morality, and I agree.

But for all the energy evangelical Christians have poured into right-wing politics, where are their political operatives, from which Trump might draw?

He has drawn some, certainly. Vice-President Mike Pence. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Evangelical-friendly Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. Perhaps there are others whose faith is not a key part of public profile, who quietly do their jobs.

But others, who are not quiet, seem far from evangelical propriety. Are there no better candidates?

Republicans complain that Trump is not accessing the institutional personnel of the party, of any stripe. And the president has a penchant for reality TV style engagement, something traditional evangelicals may be quite wary of joining, and ill-suited in aptitude.

Maybe evangelicals do populate the rolls of grassroots and upper level Republican party politics in proportionate numbers to their role in the tent.

But politics is hard work. Could it be that in the eight years of Obama many abandoned the effort and criticized only from outside the system?

It used to be that the Republican Party stood for a conservative social morality, limited government, an open economy, and a robust foreign policy. Evangelicals could easily identify with many aspects of this agenda, with respect for the religious left.

What does the Republican Party stand for now? Again, Trump is different.

So I do not wish to lay too much blame on evangelicals, and from Egypt I don’t know the lay of the land.

But while I advise no evangelical toward the Republican Party necessarily, nor even toward politics in general, I ask those inclined to redouble their efforts.

God has given believers much freedom in shaping their engagement with society. The number of God-honoring careers, political orientations, and policy options is nearly as diverse as his church worldwide.

But what he states as reality, which evangelicals must take as maxim, is that they are salt and light in a fallen world.

Better than draining the swamp, is to wade into it. Once there, sweeten.

Engage with the president, and pray for him. Join the alliances most suited to the common good. Be patient with the behavior of those made in God’s image, but not yet reflecting it.

Identify sin, wherever it is found. Take a stand on the issues with humble conviction. Cooperate as much as possible, compromising where appropriate.

In other words, be political.

Despite the common perception, perhaps American evangelicals are not political enough.

I am happy to hear from evangelical Republicans about the state of the faith within their party.

(But also: Consider this article on the Bible Study in the White House.) 

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Personal

What the Azhar Believes

al-Azhar 1912
al-Azhar Mosque in 1912

I recently attended a gathering at al-Azhar University, where the World Organization of Azhar Graduates presented with Egyptian Radio about the work and need to spread “Ashari, Wasati” Islam, and define the parameters of true religion. This is done, they said, to help combat terrorism and extremist interpretations of Islam.

That is all well and good, perhaps, provided we know what Ashari and Wasati mean.

The World Association has over 131,000 members – within Egypt but also throughout Asia, Africa, and the West. Formally an independent organization, it is headed by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the foremost spokesman for Sunni Islam in the world.

There is much debate these days, even within Egypt, about whether or not al-Azhar is part of the problem. Some say its reliance on ancient interpretations pulls from the same ground as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It is noteworthy, they say, that al-Azhar has not declared these groups non-Muslims.

The particulars of this debate are beyond this small posting, and unfortunately still beyond my expertise. But here are the basics about Ashari and Wasati.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari died in the first-half of the third century of Islam, in 935 AD.

Early Islam was wracked by internal conflicts and philosophical debates, with the two chief sparring partners the Ahl al-Hadith, the family of tradition, and the Mu’tazila, the translation of which is not especially important here, but represented what they called a rational understanding of Islam.

Ahl al-Hadith relied on literal readings of the Quran with strong dependence on the many traditions and sayings of Muhammad that circulated widely. Among their important beliefs was the uncreated nature of the Quran and the absolute sovereignty of God in the details of man’s destiny.

The Mu’tazila gave metaphorical meanings to much of the Quran, believed it was delivered in time to Muhammad and was not eternal, and that man possessed free will or else God would be unjust in populating Heaven and Hell.

Depending on the caliph, either Ahl al-Hadith or the Mu’tazila would have the upper hand and persecute their opponents. For the record, Ahl al-Hadith bear some resemblance to today’s Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims, while the Mu’tazila no longer exist.

Abu al-Hasan Ashari was raised in Ahl al-Hadith but studied and eventually joined the Mu’tazila. But he repented of this viewpoint in a famous speech at the mosque in Basra, Iraq, and eventually forged his own school.

Concerning the Quran, it was God’s eternal, uncreated word but delivered at a certain point in time. Concerning destiny, God determined certain aspects of a man’s life but did allow him free will. The Ashari position sought to moderate between the two trends at the time, and eventually became the official position of al-Azhar.

But among the most important principles promulgated was the idea that all are Muslims, no matter their philosophy or sins. Al-Azhar today accepts equally the four primary schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, and will call no Muslim an infidel.

Here then is the context for why they do not excommunicate, so to speak, the Islamic State. They are great sinners, al-Azhar repeats continually. But their belief in Islam’s essentials is correct, so they may not be put outside the faith. It is a position that has since saved the Muslim world from much of its early discord. Terrorists like the Islamic State as well as other non-violent but still extreme groups, label most everyone an infidel.

Wasati, meanwhile, simply means “of the middle.” You might think this is related to the story above, but it is of relatively modern coinage. The Quran speaks of Muslims being “the middle nation,” but in early commentary this tended to be interpreted as a people of justice and a religion that is meant to ease the life of mankind.

Wasati is often paired with another term – moderate – to basically say Islam is not a violent, extreme religion. Fair enough, as it often faces the accusation among some who view it through the terrorist lens.

If this is how Azhar graduates and Egyptian Radio are defining Islam to Muslims worldwide, that seems an encouraging matter.

Of course, the issues run deeper, but this post is long enough. I will thus close in imitation of how traditional Muslims ended their commentaries: Any mistakes are mine, and God knows best.

Those with knowledge are invited to provide a better, broader explanation of the above.

 

al-Azhar Today
al-Azhar Mosque Today

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Personal

Hijabs, Burkinis, and Assumptions

Burkini
A woman wears a Burkini in the south of France Credit: PA (via ITV)

A quick word to not judge by appearances, or to make assumptions about religious values.

Our family took a vacation to the Red Sea recently, at a hotel with a healthy mix of European speedos and Egyptian burkinis. It was quite the contrast.

From what we could tell, everyone behaved respectfully and enjoyed themselves.

While nowhere as revealing as a traditional bikini, the burkini is quite shapely. One night at dinner two Egyptians rose to dance to the folk band that came through. One was bareheaded, the other wore a hijab. Both knew well the techniques of belly dancing, and took no mind of the onlookers.

Was one a Christian, the other Muslim? If hijabed, why would she dance so? And while the burkini is an innovative development to help conservative Muslims enjoy the beach, is it conservative enough?

Within this discussion a recent article at CairoScene took my attention. A popular Egyptian comedienne decided to take off her hijab: 

Mostafa stated through her official Facebook page that she had been wearing the hijab since she was in primary school up until high school, and she believes that, in the beginning, it was internalised by her as ‘normal’ because it was just part of the way you’d look in the society and community she grew up in. However, when she really started asking herself if she was wearing it for herself, God, or people, she realised she was doing it out of pure conforming to society – “The concept of God wasn’t there,” she stated.

Mostafa started wearing it in different ways, like the fashionable turban-style hijab that has been more prevalent lately in Egypt and around the world for hijabis. But, that did not go well because she was once again attacked for wearing hijab “the wrong way,” though she asserts is something a lot of girls do in terms of their choice in clothing that is only coupled with a scarf over the head.

Her decision to take off the hijab came to her when she refused contradicting herself. She states that once she takes it off, which is what she is comfortable doing now, perhaps she will become convinced of the concept of the hijab on a personal level, and if that happens, it’ll be the right decision because it’ll come from within.

[Read on to discover the largely negative reactions to her post.]

As you encounter Muslim women in your everyday life, be careful not to make assumptions. Some wear the hijab because of their culture. Some wear it because of their husband or father. Some wear it because of piety. Some wear it as a political statement.

What they actually believe, and their personal character, may bear no relation whatsoever. Or maybe it does.

We were in church the other day and a hijabed lady came in with an uncovered friend. This is unusual in Egypt, but it doesn’t have to be a scandal.

My daughter asked, surprised, “Daddy, is she a Muslim?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Some Christians cover their heads in church.”

My daughter protested. It was clearly a Muslim hijab.

“You’ll have to ask her,” I said, smiling wryly.

My daughter didn’t like that answer either. It is sort of an awkward question, both in Egypt and America.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to make assumptions. What we need is conversation. When you next encounter that hijabed woman going about your daily life – yes, it is awkward – do your best to say hi.

Who knows what assumptions will be undone next.

 

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Personal

The Importance of ‘Nizam’

US Constitution

This quote is taken from an Iranian, but I think the sentiment — and language — would be the same for many Arabs:

On July 4, Mahmoud Esmaeili, a 33-year-old software engineer, became an American citizen. Here’s why: “I like the system here. I like the rule of law. You know what to expect and what to not expect, so you can plan. That was the major part of why I wanted to be part of America.” — from the Washington Post.

In Arabic the word for ‘system’ is ‘nizam’. On one level it refers to the governing apparatus, as heard during the Arab revolts, “al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam,” or “the people want the downfall of the regime.” Mubarak had his nizam, so did Morsi, and now Sisi bears the weight of the term.

But the term implies more. It is the way society operates. On this level Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi are much the same. Regardless of their political orientation, most people I meet complain equally about the Egyptian nizam.

And they are equally jealous of the American nizam.

The Post article relates a fascinating survey that shows 93% of Americans believe that respecting American institutions and laws are very important to being American.

Read the article to discover other criteria that polled high or low, but take a minute to be thankful for the American nizam — regardless of who hold office.

And take a moment of reflection also about the foolishness of certain political trends that seek to undermine it.

We must jealously guard our constitution, laws, separation of powers, electoral system, and essential rights. The human tendency to power must be tamed by a social contract that agrees to play by the rules.

This contract, says the survey, suggests Americans are far more united than commonly thought. Both parties would do well to better esteem this consensus.

One Iranian, I trust, would heartily agree.

Can any Farsi speakers verify if ‘nizam’ would have been his word of choice?